Conventional wisdom, supported by academic studies, maintains that today's young people - schooled in the church of self-esteem, vying for spots on reality television, promoting themselves on YouTube - are more narcissistic than their predecessors. Heck, they join Facebook groups like the Association for Justified Narcissism. A study released last year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press dubbed Americans age 18 to 25 as the "Look at Me" generation and reported that this group said that their top goals were fortune and fame.
"Anything we do that's political always falls flat," said Ricky Van Veen, 27, a founder and the editor in chief of CollegeHumor.com. "It doesn't seem like young people now are into politics as much, especially compared to their parents' generation. I think that could lend itself to the argument that there is more narcissism and they're more concerned about themselves, not things going on around them."
Yet despite exhibiting some signs of self-obsession, young Americans are not more self-absorbed than earlier generations, according to new research challenging the prevailing wisdom.
Some scholars point out that bemoaning the self-involvement of young people is a perennial adult activity.
"There's a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Kali H. Trzesniewski, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario. Trzesniewski, along with colleagues at the University of California, Davis, and Michigan State University, are publishing research in the journal Psychological Sciencethis month showing there have been very few changes in the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of youth over the last 30 years.
Trzesniewski said her study is a response to research by Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who along with colleagues has found that narcissism is much more prevalent among people born in the 1980s than in earlier generations. Twenge's book title summarizes the research: Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled - and More Miserable Than Ever Before (2006, Free Press).
Twenge attributed her findings in part to a change in cultural beliefs that arose when parents and educators fixated on instilling self-esteem in children beginning in the '70s. "We think feeling good about yourself is very, very important," she said. "Well, that never used to be the case back in the '50s and '60s, when people thought about 'What do we need to teach young people?' "
All a perception
However, some scholars argue that a spike in selfishness among young people is, like the story of Narcissus, a myth.
"It's like a cottage industry of putting them down and complaining about them and whining about why they don't grow up," said Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a developmental psychologist. Arnett, the author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens through the Twenties (2004, Oxford University Press), has written a critique of Twenge's book that is to be published in the American Journal of Psychology.
Arnett and other scholars suggest several reasons why the young may be perceived as having increased narcissistic traits. These include the personal biases of older adults, the lack of nuance in the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (the test commonly used to measure the trait), changing social norms, the news media's emphasis on celebrity, and the rise of social networking sites that encourage egocentricity.
Twenge and Trzesniewski used the inventory in their studies, though they chose different data sets and had opposite conclusions. Twenge, who has read Trzesniewski's critique, said she stands by her own nationwide analysis and has a comprehensive response, along with another paper, forthcoming in the Journal of Personality.
Arnett dismisses tests like the inventory. "They don't really get at the complexity of peoples' personality." Some of the test choices ("I see myself as a good leader") "sound like pretty normal personality features," he said.
Twenge said she understands that sentiment but that the inventory has consistently proved to be an accurate measure. "There's a fair number of personality tests that when you look at them they may seem odd, but what's important is what they predict," she said.
Remember the good
Test or no test, Arnett worries that "youth bashing" has become so common that accomplishments tend to be forgotten, like the fact that young people today have a closer relationship with their parents than existed between children and their parents in the 1960s, or that they popularized the alternative spring break in which students opt to spend a vacation helping people in a Third World country instead of partying in Cancun.
"It's the development of a new life stage between adolescence and adulthood," Arnett said. "It's a temporary condition of being self-focused, not a permanent generational characteristic."
Narcissistic Personality Inventory
In each of the following pairs, respondents are asked to choose the statement with which they agree more:
A "I have a natural talent for influencing people."
B "I am not good at influencing people."
A "I can read people like a book."
B "People are sometimes hard to understand."
A "I am going to be a great person."
B "I hope I am going to be successful."
These are some of the 40 questions on a popular version of the inventory commonly used by social scientists to measure narcissistic personality traits. (Choosing the first statement in any of the above pairings would be scored as narcissistic.)